10 Signage Lobbying Tips for Difficult Budget Years: What You Can Do to Help Government Officials
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10 Signage Lobbying Tips for Difficult Budget Years: What You Can Do to Help Government Officials

Whether it's electronic message centers or channel letters with the latest LED illumination, what may be straightforward and obvious to some presents a steep learning curve for others.

By Jeff Aran, Esq.

When it comes to signage we all know how hard it can be to get the message across, especially with discretionary approvals.

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  • No matter how many times we explain the facts to a planner, elected official or community group, it seems we start from scratch. When a project is denied and an appeal filed, we start all over again. Whether it's electronic message centers or channel letters with the latest LED illumination, what may be straightforward and obvious to some presents a steep learning curve for others.

    So, whether it's a sign ordinance revision or a new project, what can you or your staff do on a daily basis to educate government officials about the benefit of signs and their significant impact on local coffers in terms of revenue, jobs and community vitality?

    1. Introduce or re-introduce officials to your business
    Invite them to your place of business so you can educate them one-to-one on what you do - so they can see firsthand your employees at work and the finished product you produce. Most officials have never been to a sign shop and really don't have a clue how the manufacturing process works.

    Don't wait until there's a crisis to resolve or project pending, but build the relationship during down periods. Without fail, you will learn, as well, about their concerns for the community and how you might contribute or help out. This is also your chance to share (always in a positive, polite and respectful way, of course) your concerns about what government might do to improve the business climate and ease the regulatory burden of running your shop.

    Bottom line: Get to know your elected officials.

    (Note: You might be asked at some point for a monetary contribution. That's okay. Don't over-commit, but give what you feel comfortable giving, if anything. And try to obtain participation from your customer and your community business groups, as well.)

    2. Talk it up about signs
    Explain to officials what signs do and how they work - not only the mechanical but the scientific aspects, as well. Be prepared in three minutes to show them - to open their eyes - to seeing signage in a new light.

    Be sure to distinguish on-premise from off-premise signs. Let them know you are not selling billboards, but on-premise business signage for identification, wayfinding and traffic safety, etc, which helps their community navigate the commercial streetscape, shopping corridors and roadways - and brings jobs and tax dollars to their towns. Remind them (and it will be news to some) that a billboard is not your business, nor what you do, and generally not what your customers do. Bottom line: Good signage reflects a healthy, dynamic and vital business community; don't hesitate to spread the word.

    (Note: -- Don't forget that it's not just officials who know little about signage. Be sure to let everyone you know what you do, especially your customers, family and friends; they are often your best marketing. If you're a member of Rotary, Toastmasters, Optimists or the local Chamber, use those connections to talk signs and do a presentation at one of your meetings. Ask for help from your local sign association. More importantly, join the association).

    3. Deal in facts
    Evidence is key to proving your point. Government officials are regularly bamboozled by special interests (and are often experts at it themselves), but when it comes to signage we are now armed as an industry with many scientific studies on everything from illumination to letter dimensions and field of vision, speed of traffic, mounting heights, energy efficiency and EMC safety.

    Use these tools to make your point. Even if industry-funded, they usually have the imprimatur of a recognized university to add credibility.

    Bottom line: Let the facts speak for themselves; don't the other side put forth false or misleading information.

    (Note: A word about electronic message centers is in order . . . One of the (often fabricated) topics of concern involves traffic safety and EMC's. Try as they might, anti-EMC advocates have thankfully so far been unsuccessful with their "scientific" arguments, but they have made headway on aesthetic grounds and frequently seem to have the ear of elected officials.

    When faced with their rhetoric it's important to be prepared to show officials that there simply is no data showing EMC-caused traffic safety problems. Certainly, a town may impose reasonable time, place and manner restrictions, based on real data about speed of traffic, setbacks, visibility and illumination, but it should never be necessary to ban them altogether. And through examples, such a discussion will be your opportunity to show how good EMC design can enhance signage, reduce blight and be architecturally pleasing, as well as provide community public service messages.

    Yet, we all have seen some EMC's run too bright, but that's fixable with dimmers (show them how) and reasonable illumination standards. The fact of the matter is that for the 40+ years EMC's have been around, no reported auto accident has been attributed to an EMC. Moreover, point out to the officials how many government agencies (often in their own cities) use EMC's for traffic control, community events, convention centers, sporting events, and gasoline pricing, etc. Even Caltrans uses them on the highway (although thankfully not yet for advertising). Arguably, if they weren't safe Caltrans wouldn't employ them.

    Surely, the parties with the greatest vested interest in EMC safety are the manufacturers, who want to avoid exposure to liability. If they believed their product was problematic and caused auto accidents, it presumably wouldn't the make it to the market.)

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    4. Stay the course-clarity of message
    Although it's obvious, while small talk is a good ice-breaker, a well organized presentation with a short agenda that shows your issue clearly and concisely will reflect favorably upon you and your business as the knowledgeable "local expert," i.e., the go-to person when it comes to signs.

    When Joe Councilman wants to talk parks, you need to steer the conversation toward adequate business signage that helps to raise sales, which increases tax revenues to pay for those parks. That being said, don't apologize or undercut your position and certainly don't let yourself agree to negative statements which might undermine your position.

    On the other hand, don't be afraid to admit you don't know something. If you're not sure, answer with, "That's a great question; I'll check it out and get back to you." (And then don't forget the follow-up!).

    Bottom line: Be respectful, but stay on point.

    5. Show how signs generate jobs, revenue and taxes
    The sign industry talks about this a lot, but many do not understand the connection and don't know how to make it work. The economic data on the economic power of on-premise signage is overwhelming.

    Whether based anecdotally on customer comments, or using empirical research from an appraiser or university study, such as "The Economic Power of On-Premise Signage," we can show without question that signs have a significant, meaningful impact on the municipal bottom line, as well as merchant and sign companies.

    Bottom line: No sign = no business. It's that simple. A successful business with adequate signage brings in customers who generates revenue, which means growth and jobs, which in turn positively impacts the municipal tax base. Sign code changes, such as overly restrictive height/size, amortization, eliminating poles or banning EMC's, have a direct adverse effect which can be measured by the decline in sales and number of transactions.

    6. Work with coalitions
    Our experience in California shows that while the California Sign Association is the statewide spokesperson, it's our participation with our customers and their associations that hold significant sway with local and state officials. CSA often seeks out and participates with other allied groups when lobbying for or against legislation. In Los Angeles, for example, while we are spearheading the effort to protect signage and are the "experts," we participate with two local chambers, a downtown group, the car dealers, hotel/motel association, the restaurant groups, building owner association, and even some local unions, to spread our message. To paraphrase the old E.F. Hutton marketing catchphrase, now "when CSA speaks, people listen . . ."

    Bottom line: Engage with your customer base and business associates to help deliver the message and to help protect their bottom line.

    7. Don't be afraid to contribute: Pay compliments when appropriate (without any quid pro quo)
    This is a bit touchy for some. After twenty years representing the sign industry, it's been my experience that most of us are fed up with Red Tape. We all can live with reasonable rules, but the line is drawn when it comes to government sticking its regulatory nose too far into our shops and livelihoods. (This applies to us lawyers, too; although if it weren't for government I wouldn't have so many friends in the sign industry!)

    As much as we are anti-bureaucracy, we all recognize the regulators aren't going away. The reality is that elected officials and most government employees want "to serve" for the betterment of our communities. When possible, with the understanding that we often will not see eye-to-eye on many issues, we need to recognize and acknowledge their motivation and support programs that seek to serve those goals.

    Bottom line: Donate strategically. Whether that means giving money, signage or corporate sponsorship, it's important to show that you are serious about your commitment to the community, as well as to your own bottom line. When choosing whom to donate, look at it like giving a "reward" for work well done.

    8. Give the city a "roadmap" to deal with its signage concerns
    Often officials do not know what they really want to do; nor do they understand the problem they're trying to solve; they've only heard from consultants, a complaining citizenry or other special interests. Once you've identified the root of the problem and consulted with your attorney or sign association, lay out a written plan to address the issue.

    More than telling the bureaucrats what they "should do," the plan will help tighten goals and frame the discussion in a way that focuses officials on the "real" problem and gives them a means of resolution. Whether for a code rewrite or particular project, getting a grasp on the real problem will present opportunities to fix it.

    Bottom line: Once you grasp the problem, show the city a reasonable means of solving it. For example, in Los Angeles the real problem was illegal billboards. The city's initial, uninformed reaction was to propose severe restrictions on all signs and to eliminate the distinction between on-premise and off-premise signage. We subsequently learned there was a shortage of inspectors and that potentially 50% of all on-premise signs were installed without permits due to processing challenges. Through the good work of our Los Angeles Task Force, after numerous meeting with various stakeholders, including the building and planning departments, a written plan was developed to address their issues.

    That document titled, Signing Off on a Cleaner, Safer Los Angeles, became the cornerstone of a citywide signage improvement and amnesty program now pending before the City Council . Once implemented it should result in efficient, streamlined permitting beneficial to the sign industry and the city, as well as raise revenues for dedicated sign planners and inspectors.

    9. Stay on top of agendas
    One of the regular challenges we face as industry doing work in multiple jurisdictions is keeping tabs on city council or supervisor meetings. Too often we learn about a sign code rewrite just a few days prior to the first public hearing. While it may take a few extra minutes each week, staying on top of agendas is extremely important to knowing what's going on in the community.

    Bottom line: Be sure to develop relationships and check in with planning staff and elected officials regularly, so you can find out what's on their mind and get the "heads up" before it's too late.

    (Note:: Use email effectively. Elected officials receive hundreds of emails weekly and rarely can read or respond to them all. Be sure yours is short and to the point. Don't forget that real letters, even if sent as email attachments, still work well and usually have a more lasting impact. Your occasional personal appearance at public meetings during the "open comment" period is also a good opportunity to make yourself known when there's not a burning issue pending.)

    10. Don't give up
    Continue to keep your community leaders and elected officials informed about the impact of an issue, even after it has passed or a vote taken. If they voted to support a program that affects you, let them know how and what the impacts are. If the program needs fixing, let them know that, too.

    Bottom line: Nothing ventured, nothing gained. What may have seemed like a good idea initially may not be effective or have resulted in adverse consequences for you, your business and employees. When times have changed, the opportunity for regulatory change is ripe. Stay in touch regularly with local officials.

    Jeff Aran is an attorney in private practice representing the sign industry and its customers. He also serves as legal counsel and director of government affairs for the California Sign Association. Mr. Aran may be contacted via www.signlawyer.com or 888-SIGNLAW, 916.395.6000, jaran@signlawyer.com

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